Black River Public School

One of the Nation’s Best

High school ranked in top 100

HOLLAND – In just 10 short years, Black River Public School has climbed into the upper ranks of the nation’s high schools based on student achievement. Its challenge now is to stay there.

"We’re always looking at how to stay ahead of the curve," Greg Dykhouse, BRPS’s director of academics, told Michigan Education Report. "We also want to be able to bring more to the students."

For example, Dykhouse said it was satisfying to see the state earlier this year institute high school graduation requirements.

"We started off with that kind of rigorous expectation," he said.

A May 2006 Newsweek article listed Black River at No. 55 among the nation’s top 100 high schools, including No. 2 in Michigan. The top-ranked school in Michigan (and ninth overall) was the International Academy of Bloomfield Hills, a public high school run by a consortium of businesses and Oakland County school districts. The rankings are determined by dividing the number of students who take Advanced Placement exams by the number of graduating seniors.

"When we were organized in 1996, we said we wanted to help prepare students for college and for life," Head of School Dave Angerer said. "It was a natural choice to offer AP courses."

Students can receive college credit based on how well they perform on AP exams.

"We judge the success of our mission based on how many seniors apply and are accepted into college," Angerer said. "We’ve done well by that. About 90 percent go on to higher education."

The 32 seniors who made up Black River’s class of 2005, for example, earned more than $850,000 combined in college scholarship money. Some 73 percent of them scored a 3, 4 or 5 on at least one AP exam, and they outscored the national average on both the ACT and SAT.

Angerer said Black River has produced two AP National Scholars, as well as several Scholars with Distinction and Scholars with Honor.

"The state has done a much better job in the last four or five years recognizing students who do well on AP exams," Angerer added. "They have a luncheon for them in Lansing and give them a ‘Rising Star’ award."

Dykhouse said Black River offers 18 different AP courses, with 12 to 14 taught in a given semester.

"We rotate them so that students have an opportunity to take as many as they want," he said. "For example, we have one teacher who does both English Language and English Literature, and those are rotated every other semester."

Dykhouse said it is not inexpensive to purchase the national AP curriculum, but it’s something the school is committed to.

"It’s not cheap, especially for a small school like us," Dykhouse said. "But these students who are getting 4s and 5s on the exams, they are among the best in the world. They are preparing to be global leaders."

Angerer said the success at the high school level has spread to the middle and elementary school levels at Black River.

"Advanced Placement is really the capstone of our curriculum," Angerer said. "It bleeds down through the lower grades and is a focus of academic rigor."

Chartered by Grand Valley State University in 1996, Black River has grown into a three-building campus in Holland, located on property donated by the BASF Corporation. It has grown to 710 students in K-12, with a waiting list of about 150. Admission to Black River, as with all charter public schools, is free and open to everyone.

“A May 2006 Newsweek article listed Black River at No. 55 among the nation’s top 100 high schools, including No. 2 in Michigan.”

"It’s important to note that our growth has occurred at a time when enrollment in our county has been relatively flat," Angerer said. "That’s pretty significant."

Angerer said he’s noticed a change in some of the conventional public schools in the area, which he thinks has been positive.

"Things are a little different since we came on the scene," he said. "More schools are adding AP classes, which they didn’t used to have. I think the Holland area is a microcosm of the benefits of school choice."

Black River so far has raised about $1.3 million in a $3 million capital campaign that will add a commons area, music rooms and a gymnasium to its grounds. Unlike conventional public school districts, charter schools cannot levy additional property taxes for capital projects.

"We tend to operate like a small university, in that we have a focus on development and we work with business leaders and parents who support our facility needs."

Aside from its performance and ranking on the list, Black River has another unique feature that sets it apart from many public schools in Michigan. The traditional marking period ends in early May, and that is followed by a four-week project term, during which students can study elective classes in-depth, both through research and hands-on learning.

"Last year, we had a group of seventh graders who studied Beaver Island," Angerer said. "They spent time learning about it, then they went there and camped, did some activities, then they came back and wrote it all up and presented it to everyone."

At the end of the 2006-2007 school year, a different group of students will venture a little farther away from home as part of the project term – Australia.

"They’ve been planning this for a long time," Angerer said. "They’ve been studying everything there is to know about the place."